The Scarcity of Roster Spots

There is a situation brewing with the Seattle Mariners 25 man roster that has me aggravated. I am unsure if it is also going on anywhere else, but it is by no means completely unique. Namely, it appears likely the Mariners are headed toward breaking camp with three bona-fide catchers on the active roster.

The reason seems to be that they plan to have games with both Kenji Johjima and Jeff Clement, the nominal candidates for the starting catcher role, in the lineup at the same time, one at catcher and one at designated hitter. The fear is that in those games, if whoever the starting catcher is gets injured, moving the other catcher behind the plate will vacate the DH and move the pitcher into the lineup.

My problem with this stems from my same disgust with the 12-man pitching staff. Teams are sacrificing bench bats for highly specialized positional players and I think its costing them efficiency. First, how often is it that the starting catcher gets hurt to the degree that he has to be removed from the game? Once, maybe twice a season on average? There’s also the case of the catcher getting ejected, but that is also a self-controlled factor. Then you have to factor in that it would not be 100% of the games where the backup catcher would be slotted as the starting DH, so only a fraction of those one or two times would a situation arise that you would need to replace the starting catcher and not have a backup catcher available on the bench.

For those rare cases, there appears to be two options. One is to go with an emergency catcher, a Chris Shelton type. In general, that’s a bad solution, but it’s also a solution unlikely to kill you over the course of a portion of a single game. It’s not akin to running out of pitchers in a long extra inning game for example. The other obvious solution is to just shift the backup catcher to catcher and lose the DH for the rest of the game. Remember, we only need a solution for the remainder of that game because after that, another catcher can be recalled from Triple-A if needed.

We also have the factor that this situation would on average happen toward the middle of the game. So if you went with the losing the DH option, you’re likely to be close to pulling the starting pitcher for the bullpen by then anyways and you could at that point revert to NL-style PHs and RP management. If you went with the emergency catcher option, you’re also dealing with only a percentage of a game.

None of this is to say that carrying a third catcher is always a bad decision. My beef is that the above discussion never seems to appear. Because incremental improvements, such as bringing in a better pinch hitter 20 times a year, are hard for us to process, even when they sum up to far more than a single instance of dramatic failure, such as having to use an emergency catcher for three innings once, the typical conservative management in baseball would rather use a roster spot all season long to avoid having a possible problematic situation arise once than to improve their overall efficiency.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

25 Responses to “The Scarcity of Roster Spots”

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  1. Kevin S. says:

    The Yankees are looking at a similar situation because of Posada’s shoulder. Obviously, he’s on the team, but they’re carrying Molina as the backup and also just acquired Chris Stewart from the White Sox, with the word being that they plan to stick him on the big-league roster. They’re facing an even bigger roster crunch, because they’re apparently planning on carrying both Melky and Gardner. Starting 9 + Melky/Swisher/Util IF/2 Catchers = poor bench planning, and that’s even with not carrying 12 pitchers like they usually do. Ugh.

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  2. Matt H. says:

    I’ve thought about this before, and sometimes the risk aversion in MLB astounds me.

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  3. Zach says:

    In theory, I’d much rather see the Mariners (or any team) take the second option: take your chances giving up the DH spot, with the idea that you can always pinch hit if you’re really worried about letting a pitcher bat. I wonder, though, if the M’s do keep Shelton as the other half of the 1B platoon if they’d be willing to let him be an emergency catcher if the situation arose.

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    • Evan says:

      Though if Felix is batting, he hits grand slams every second time he’s up, so that’s hardly a problem. :)

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  4. djw says:

    Agreed wholeheartedly; this has always bothered me. The worst case scenario is that Washburn or whoever embarrasses himself at the plate a couple of times. I don’t know why this is worth a roster spot.

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  5. Kazinski says:

    I think you’re confused by the many stories about Griffey playing left field regularly. He is not going to be playing left field every day, or even every other day. It only makes sense for the M’s to carry a third catcher if Griffey is not DHing.
    And that will end up being even more devastating to their roster flexibility, because 12 pitchers and 3 catchers leaves you with only 3 additional bench players. With Griffey in the outfield then you also have to carry at least 2 reserve outfielders, because a late game defensive substitution is is going to be almost mandatory in any close game, plus the inevitible 2-3 days off a week Jr. will need. That leaves a bench with only one reserve infielder which is just unthinkable. If you had a Mark McLemore and a Willie Bloomquist type on the bench that you could slot anywhere in the outfield or infield then you could get away with it, maybe. But the only they really have with any sort of versatility is Russ Branyan (1B/3B/LF) and he’s the starting first baseman.

    I don’t think Zdurincik or Wakamatsu are going to let themselves get painted into a corner like that.

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  6. Russell says:

    I think you overlooking one (also relatively unimportant) aspect of the game: pinch running. Those hundreds of times a year when both are in the line up, but one needs to be ran for, have to add up… right? (By “hundreds in mean “less then 10-ish.”)

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  7. 200tang says:

    Uh Johjima and Clement are going to be hitting in the same lineup? I’m pretty sure they’ll platoon with Griffey in DH/C. Assuming the Mariners are up against a RHP it will probably end up :

    DH : Griffey
    C : Johjima/Clement

    and against LHP

    DH : Clement
    C : Johjima

    of course there will be times when they won’t use those lineups, but that should be what happens the majority of the time pending an injury.

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    • 200tang says:

      btw that all changes if they decide to carry Shelton and Sweeney for whatever reason. They should be getting Clement AB’s no matter what though.

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    • Teej says:

      Uh Johjima and Clement are going to be hitting in the same lineup? I’m pretty sure they’ll platoon with Griffey in DH/C.

      The author said there will be games when they’re both in the lineup, and the scenario you just presented says the same thing, right?

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  8. Eric says:

    Using retrosheet data from 2000 to 2004, here are the frequencies of the number of catchers getting 1+ PAs in a game for one team:

    3: 13 (0.05%)
    2: 1683 (6.93%)
    1: 22588 (93.01%)

    A third catcher looks to be a monumental waste of a roster spot given the odds that it’s needed. And it’s even worse than that… Of those thirteen occasions, SEVEN were the Marlins and Angels alone… The 28 other teams split just six uses in FIVE seasons.

    Even the backup catcher doesn’t come into play much [in a single game].

    The average was 11.2 games per season. Not even once every other week.

    I wonder if teams– especially those with a durable catcher who can go 130+ games a year– would be better off with just their starter and and ’emergency’ catcher who is starting at another position most days that he isn’t catching?

    Turns out 130+ games (worth of innings) is pretty uncommon. In the five year sample, there are just 9 player-seasons, and four are Kendall and two are Posada.

    110+ games is a bit more common; six catchers had 110+ games in atleast four of the five season.

    So, I suppose it is possible that if you had a player WILLING to catch upto about 50 games a year, who could atleast be a passable defensive catcher for limited games while being a good enough offensive and defensive player at another position that they’d be worth having out there the rest of the games, then you could probably save another roster spot.

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    • Bill says:

      Interesting post Matthew, and great research on this post, Eric. However, I’m not sure if the retrosheet data accurately reflects the Mariner’s situation. In the Mariner’s situation, it doesn’t sound as if they are worried about the 0.05% of the time that they will need a third catcher – if they knew that Clement would not hit well enough to DH (if he didn’t catch, he wouldn’t play), they probably wouldn’t even entertain the notion of carrying three catchers. But, since it sounds as if the Mariners want Clement in the lineup even if he is not catching, on those days that Clement and Joh are both in the lineup they have to worry about the 7% chance that they will need to go to another catcher. In this situation, they don’t want to have to bat a pitcher.
      So, say Clement is good enough to be in the line up 150 games this year. Say he catches 110 games and DH’s 40 games. In 7 % of those 40 games (3 games), another catcher is needed. I’m guessing that in most of the games the replacements are due to late inning defensive replacements and pinch runners, so in maybe one game this year will they be required to play more than a few innings with a pitcher hitting – and this is assuming Clement breaks out this year and needs to be in the lineup when he isn’t catching. If this happens, then maybe (and that’s a huge stretch) the M’s should have a third catcher, but otherwise, I think they are wasting a roster spot.

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      • Kazinski says:

        So, say Clement is good enough to be in the line up 150 games this year.

        But where? Clement and Griffey are both LH, and Clement can’t play any position but catcher (and that is questionable). Russ Branyan (1B), is also left handed, so it makes no sense for Clement to play there either. It also makes no sense for Johjima to get any AB’s at DH or 1B, Sweeney Shelton, or Balentien would be better options there.

        If Rob Johnson makes the team, the Clement will be in the minors, and vice versa. Last year the M’s did carry 3 catchers for a large part of the season, but they had Jose Vidro at DH then not Jr. They also had Wille Bloomquist and Miguel Cairo on the bench then, each of whom could play at least 6 positions, if needed.

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      • Eric says:

        That was roughly where I was going.

        If an AL team is going to have:
        12 pitchers, 8 starting position players, a regular DH, a second AND third backup catcher, they are left with just two other bench players.

        Given the infrequency of actually using the third catcher, a regular bench player is probably alot more valuable– a fraction of legitimate PAs for the #3 catcher versus ~50-100 PAs as a PHer or ~50 innings from a late inning defensive replacement. Third catcher is a waste.

        Using the second catcher SOMEWHERE when he isn’t starting behind the plate might help with the roster alittle.

        In the Mariners case:

        If Johjima catches 110 games and Clement 52 and when they aren’t catching they are on the bench waiting to be an injury replacement [and not likely a PHer unless it is some kind of double-switch]. That means essentially one roster spot is wasted as a ‘just-in-case’ scenerio.

        If one their off days they are atleast sometime still playing as the DH, pushing Griffey to the OF, they’ve just added a better player to their bench, with the downside being IF the catcher gets hurt, they lose the DH and end up with the pitcher batting– and if the injury isn’t early in the game, you might only be looking at 1-2 PA tops.

        If Griffey is DHing 81 games, that leaves 81 games where you can have that better bench.

        So- in that scenerio of 81 times using the backup catcher as DH-
        You have 81 extra opportunities to use a PHer that you wouldn’t ordinarily have at the risk of really maybe 1-4 pitcher PAs.

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  9. D-Rock says:

    I feel your pain. The Reds carried 3 catchers last year, and they didn’t have the whole “DH/Catcher” dilemma. There’s nothing like 3 roster spots going to David Ross, Paul Bako, and Javier Valentine.

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  10. dan l says:

    Why not have MLLB increase the active roster to 26 or 27?

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    • jbader says:

      They would just blow it on more specialty pitchers, more third catchers, more rule 5 benchies, and more dedicated pinch runners – leading to more pitching changes, substitutions, and longer games. A better idea would be to reduce the number of roster spots if anything (though the union would rightly kibosh that idea).

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    • djw says:

      Because then the fine art of roster construction would be dumbed down, and hard (but interesting!) choices would be made less, and the games would slow down more as we might have more midinning pitching changes.

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  11. El rey says:

    If Jose Vidro had 308 at bats last year, I don´t think having 10 at bats (max) from a pitcher is a big issue.

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  12. B says:

    The Giants are essentially doing this since we’re playing Sandoval at 3rd while carrying another backup catcher. I want to say, not that I disagree with your overall point, but that I think you underestimate how bad of a situation it is to have an emergency catcher in the game. A couple of years ago the Giants had to play Pedro Feliz at catcher (and Noah Lowry in the outfield), and it forces the pitching staff to throw all fastballs if there is a runner on base, because it is very unlikely an emergency catcher is going to do much to block a breaking ball in the dirt. But then again, how many times has an emergency backup catcher been used over the last few years…?

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  13. Brett says:

    Sounds like you wish the Mariners were more like the Royals. Last year, the Royals only carried two catchers all year, but Trey Hillman wasn’t afraid to occasionally have Miguel Olivo DH.

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  14. lookatthosetwins says:

    As a twins fan, I’ve had a problem with this for a long time. The FO has never done anything stupid like adding a third catcher before september (that I can remember?!) but Gardenhire has consistently stated that he didn’t want to DH Mauer on days when he wasn’t catching, and stated this as a reason. We have a very good, left handed DH in Kubel now, but this was happening when we were throwing Jason Tyner out there to DH. Think about the difference in having Jason Tyner vs. Joe Mauer batting vs. the chance that we’d have to bat a pitcher a few times on some rare occasion.

    Now, if Mauer just needed a day off, thats fine, but leaving the best hitter on the bench to make sure that a pitcher (or pinch hitter if one’s available) doesn’t have to bat on some rare occasion is the type of thing that has driven us crazy up here in Minnesota for years.

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